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Depression Is 'Not Just An Experience For You, But Also For Everyone Around You'

This is the story of Charles C. from Michigan.

I was in my freshman year of college. I feel like during that period of your life, people are going through a lot of changes. For me, it was definitely a big adjustment -- starting college and going through the process of coming out with my parents -- so that was incredibly difficult.

Because of that, it was a tough time for me, both personally and just kind of adjusting to a new environment. So there was a lot of stress going on in my life. I kind of sank into a depressive cycle at that point.

Going through it, it was really miserable. You don't really know what's going on. There's just a total lack of energy, and a lot of confusion and frustration and anger, and a very complicated mix of negative emotions.

At some point, I realized something was definitely wrong. I was completely miserable and was unable to get out of bed for long periods of time. I realized I definitely needed to seek professional help. That was one of the things I was really lucky on -- I didn't necessarily feel a lot of stigma about needing to reach out for help. Being from the Midwest, mental health is not really a topic that's talked a lot about. Not a lot of people where I'm from see a therapist or talk about seeing a therapist. But I happened to be going to school on the East Coast, where it seems to be more common.

So I sought help from my university, and I did talk to my parents at that point. In the beginning, it wasn't that they weren't supportive. They obviously cared so much about me, but this was just something so new to our family. They had no idea how to help me through that process. There was just a lack of communication on both sides. I didn't want to confide in them -- and they would constantly push and want to know more because they cared about me. But I wasn't in a place where I was ready to share that experience with them.

So I started going to therapy, but even then, I think I went maybe a couple times and then I stopped. I didn't keep going -- I didn't have qualms about going to therapy, but I didn't feel like it was that helpful because I wasn't in a place where I was comfortable about opening up to a stranger. I didn't know why I should see someone who doesn't know me, to do what (I thought at the time) my friends could do just as well. Obviously, now I'm much more aware, but at the time, I thought, "My friends listen to me, and I can talk and confide in them. There's no reason to speak to a professional for help."

It wasn't until another year later, my junior year of college, that things completely fell apart. I think at that point, I just really isolated myself. I put on the brave face in public because I didn't want anybody to know what was going on. But privately, I was really struggling. And you know, college of course is hard, and it finally, really became too much. I had to reach out for a lot of academic support, and to kind of get through the day and get through my college experience. So that's when things really came to a head, and I was like, "No, I really need to see a real professional, and talk things through with a therapist."

So I sought help again through the university, but this time my mindset was different. I started talk therapy and worked through a lot of the feelings that I had, about my parents and my family, and our dynamic. And I also started taking medication, which actually, for me, helped a lot in those first few weeks. It completely turned me around. But then, in my case, the medication I was on, it really plateaued at a certain level. I never really got to a point where typically a clinician would say the medication is going well. I always kind of was stuck at that, "better than what it was before" phase, but around 50 to 60 percent. I plateaued there for a lot time.

I had been hesitant to start medication. I had always thought, if it's something you're going through psychologically, I don't know how much relationship there is with my biochemistry. I felt weird about taking pills. But obviously, having experienced the first few weeks and seeing that incredible turnaround, I stuck with it. And of course, with the talk therapy as well.

Now, I'm several years out from that time. Now, I’m not on talk therapy, or any kind of medication. I’m really doing well. That’s kind of the piece that I really want to emphasize -- this recovery process. It’s so individual, but at the same time, it's so collective. It's your friends and your family, too. Being depressed is incredibly lonely and incredibly isolating, but especially in my case, I think I was very lucky that I had such good people around me. But when you're depressed, you don't realize it. You don't know there are other people who care so much about you, and you just feel really alone.

This isn't to say that depressed people need to think about everyone around you -- the priority is to make yourself better. But when you are in this recovery process, you're going to feel, whether fairly or not, "Why are all these people so invested in this? This is my issue." And when it comes down to it, it can be a selfish way to think about things, and I think that's what I had to learn. It is such a group experience -- it's not just an experience for you, but also for everyone around you. So, for instance, when you're experiencing that doubt yourself of, "Oh my gosh, is it going to come back? Am I going to get better?", the people who love you are experiencing those same feelings. It's understandable that they're going to pick up on that. And there's nothing wrong with that -- it’s just that you're probably doing better than other people may realize. So at that point, it almost becomes your responsibility, in a certain way, to be like, "Let's take a step back. I'm doing well, I'm OK." And it's also important to openly say to people around you, "Look, it's not like your fears are unjustified, but it's not necessarily the most productive thing for us to be worrying about that all time."

I'm now at the tail end of the process of everyone constantly worrying about me. I'm definitely over that with my friends, but with my parents, it's still a process.

While I obviously can't speak for all parents, in my case, my parents and I had a very close relationship and an incredibly strong base. And through all of this process, for them, I know that it felt like the strong base that we had, that foundation, was breaking. They started questioning all these things that they did and experiencing a lot of guilt.

I think that's the biggest piece of advice I would tell to parents: Those are reasonable feelings to be feeling, but for the sake of your child, it's important to separate whatever emotions you're going through -- guilt, uncertainty -- and deal with those at a personal level. It's not productive to combine those anxieties and those emotions that the parents are going through with what the child is going through. It's hard, but it's really important to be able to maintain a certain level of emotional discipline and say, "This is what my child is going through, and I need to keep it separate from what I'm feeling."

As told to Amanda Chan. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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